Analysis: Meetings yield no Syria solution

Matthew Lee, AP Diplomatic Writer

Washington — Another meeting in another luxury hotel in another European city oozing with diplomatic history.

Such is the state of the international effort to revive a peace plan for Syria.

The effort fell short again on Friday, as top diplomats from the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Vienna to toss around ideas on how to restart talks on a political transition in Syria. They failed to agree on any concrete steps other than to meet again, probably this week. Other interested nations may participate in the new meeting, likely in Vienna, but there was no consensus on which nations should attend because some oppose a role for Iran, while others support it.

And after years of on-and-off talks, the four countries — along with other players — remain deeply divided on the most contentious issue: the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Diplomats speak of a changed dynamic in Syria and elsewhere that could finally break the impasse. They say it would be irresponsible not to test it.

Given the catastrophe that Syria has become, they should be given credit for pursuing a diplomatic solution. Yet they have been there multiple times before and multiple meetings have produced no result.

“There are going to be more of these discussions as there needs to be,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday. “While each one on its own is important, as the next one will be, there will be one after that, and probably one after that, and who knows how many more until we really reach the ultimate goal here.”

Friday’s meeting in the Austrian capital was the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate the 2012 Geneva Communique, which called for the formation of a transitional government in Syria that would oversee free and fair elections as part of a broader political transition.

Yet in the 40 months since the communique was signed, there has been no movement toward implementing it.

In Syria, in those 40 months, the Islamic State has overshadowed the rebels who first opposed Assad, setting up the capital of its aspirational caliphate in the northern Syria city of Raqqa and making the situation on the ground far more combustible. The death toll has climbed over a quarter-million and world powers are competing dangerously for prominence in the skies above. A Defense Department program to train and equip moderate rebels to combat the Islamic State was a failure and CIA-backed rebels fighting Assad are now under attack by Russian bombers.

Diplomats, despite several large conferences in Switzerland and smaller meetings around Europe and New York, have been unable to move beyond the communique’s requirement that the transition government be chosen by “mutual consent” of the current government led by Assad, and its political foes.

Mutual consent was the formula devised by the U.S. and Russia that allowed them to claim success in Geneva but essentially guaranteed stalemate in the actual process of creating an interim administration as Assad refuses to go and the opposition refuses to accept him.

Since then, with the exception of one important agreement reached in Geneva in 2013 that got Assad to get rid of his declared chemical weapons stockpile, international diplomacy has come up short.

An attempt in Montreux, Switzerland, in January and February 2014 collapsed when the Syrian delegation refused to discuss Assad and branded the opposition terrorists.

On several occasions, American officials have pointed hopefully to Assad’s weakening position and apparent softening in Russia’s stance on Assad only to have those hopes dashed by Russian consistency on the matter.

The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna in July, brought hopes in Washington and elsewhere that a renewed diplomatic push might actually finally achieve results in Syria.

Shortly after the deal was struck, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Qatar to compare notes on what else might be possible to achieve. The U.S. and allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and much of Europe are united in insisting that Assad must step down for a credible transition to occur. Russia and Iran maintain they’re neutral on Assad and that it’s up to the Syrian people to decide their leaders. Yet, Tehran and Moscow have thrown military might into assisting Damascus.

In Vienna last week, Kerry and Lavrov acknowledged the others’ sharply conflicting views on Assad.

“It is clear that Russia and Iran are supportive of Assad, and certainly publicly have argued that it is important for Assad to be there for the stability of the country,” Kerry said. Others, however, “understand that Assad creates an impossible dynamic for peace — that you can’t make peace, even if you wanted to, with Assad there.”

Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the U.S. and its allies of being “obsessed” with Assad and noted what had happened when authoritarian rulers like Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein were ousted.

“If we count on changing the regime and especially if we focus narrowly on a concrete figure, we’ve already seen that in Iraq and in Libya and we know what this ended up in … a grave crisis in those countries,” Lavrov said.

Resolution, therefore, appears to be a long shot, even if Assad has hinted he may be ready to accept early elections once the terrorist threat has been addressed.

Kerry, however, is undeterred. He says continuing the dialogue may still yield results as all parties to the Geneva Communique can agree on the path to the ultimate goal despite differences on Assad.

“If we can get into a political process, sometimes these things have a way of resolving themselves,” he said, adding somewhat cryptically: “In other words, it could take years sometimes just to reach agreement on what we already agree on.”

If that’s the case, another meeting in another luxury hotel in another European city oozing with diplomatic history is unlikely to make much of a difference.